WASHINGTON — A blustery cold front was moving through the capital and the massive Justice Department building was all-but-deserted Wednesday night when Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. held a heated exchange over what kind of Supreme Court nominee President Reagan should pick for his second attempt.
Baker, ever the pragmatist, argued with uncharacteristic vehemence for federal appeals Judge Anthony M. Kennedy of Sacramento, according to a source familiar with the session. Baker insisted that Kennedy, a seasoned jurist whose name drew little more than muted protests from many of the interest groups that helped defeat the nomination of Robert H. Bork in the Senate, could win confirmation without expending the Administration's dwindling political capital.
Choice of Conservatives
Meese, just back from the funeral of his toddler grandson in San Diego, hung tough for federal appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the District of Columbia, the choice of ideological conservatives at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the Administration.
On Thursday morning, when Baker and Meese carried their disagreement to the Oval Office, it took Reagan only 20 minutes to side with Meese, who has been at Reagan's side for 20 years--since his early days as governor of California.
A senior White House official described Baker's loss as "pretty significant. . . . A lot of folks thought anyone reasonable that Baker wanted, the President would take. It shows there is no rapport there."
Reagan's choice could shape his remaining 15 months in office by leading him into yet another bruising confirmation battle with the Senate and diverting him from other issues.
The battle lines over the Supreme Court vacancy had been drawn within the Administration during the fight for Bork's confirmation, with the "movement conservatives," as they call themselves, complaining that Baker and the White House moderates were not fighting hard enough against the liberal assault on Bork.
Wednesday night's dispute between Meese and Baker capped an extraordinary secret session in a high-ceilinged Justice Department office where the three finalists for the nomination were interviewed for an hour each by Meese, Baker and three other White House and Justice Department aides.
Kennedy, who had flown to Washington earlier Wednesday, was whisked into the building at 6 p.m. in a limousine that did not stop at the guarded motor gate but went immediately into the garage and emerged at a courtyard out of public view and beyond the scan of the department's press room.
Ginsburg, a Washington resident, also entered the building unnoticed.
The third candidate, federal appeals Judge William W. Wilkins Jr. of South Carolina, was in Washington on business of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which he heads. Administration officials said Wilkins, whose candidacy was pushed by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.), was never seriously in the running.
'Included to Stroke Strom'
"He was included to stroke Strom," one source said. Thurmond is the top-ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which set the stage for Bork's defeat in the Senate by voting 9 to 5 to recommend his rejection.
Meese said Thursday that the interviews dealt with judicial philosophy and background. "The questions did not pertain to how they would vote," he said in an interview.
After the interviews, Meese, Baker and the other officials discussed the candidates but failed to resolve their differences. Meese, who frequently plays down any sign of disharmony within the Administration, said it "would be overblown" to describe his exchange with Baker as argumentative.
"I would have been happy with either one," Meese contended.
But two other sources familiar with the session said the disagreement was sharp. Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds reportedly supported Meese by arguing that nominating a less dedicated conservative than Ginsburg would amount to caving in to liberal opponents.
Meese Gains Allies
Overnight, Meese gained allies for his position. One source said that Meese's predecessor as attorney general, William French Smith, called Reagan, a longtime friend, to argue for Ginsburg. Smith was flying to Los Angeles Thursday night and could not be reached for comment.
Only minutes before the Oval Office meeting began, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.) called Reagan and announced that he and other conservative senators would oppose Kennedy, Senate and Administration sources said.
Helms explained to reporters later that he told the President that "I have strong objections to one of the other potential nominees . . . and that if he were nominated . . . I would openly oppose him. I said, 'No way, Jose, could I support him.' "
The same group of officials who later conducted the interviews met several times after Bork was rejected by the Senate to go over the names of possible nominees, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.